The world of fitness can seem daunting to everyone. But as people in larger bodies know all too well, this can often be exclusive, unwelcoming, or even dangerous.
Diet culture is largely to blame, Nancy Ellis OrdwayPh.D., LCSW, Jefferson City, Missouri, psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders and weight stigma, and author of Thrive at any weight, said SELF. It can find its way into physical spaces, like gyms and studios, where fitness instructors can rely on harmful body-based « motivation » to encourage their class to work hard (for example, by implying that the work they do “earns” their dessert later). The message: « You don’t want to look like me, » says Dr. Ellis-Ordway. It appears in stores, where finding suitable sportswear in larger sizes is almost impossible and expensive. And it’s also ubiquitous outside of dedicated « fitness spaces, » which can lead to the same feelings of alienation from outdoor activities like hiking, running, and biking.
« When [people] in the larger bodies that exercise outside and are visible, there’s an awful lot of people who seem to feel empowered to comment on that,” says Dr. Ellis-Ordway. This is especially true for women and other marginalized genders.
As SELF explored in our Future of Fitness package, the fitness world has a lot of work to do to be a welcoming and inclusive space for all bodies. While we need a solution from the institution as a whole, many plus-size athletes meanwhile take it upon themselves to navigate the world of fitness to create their own space. We spoke to eight heavier athletes to find out what helped them find their niche in fitness. Here is what they said.
1. Look for fitness spaces for diverse representation.
“Sometimes, as a black weightlifter, people assume I’m incredibly strong, both because of racial stereotyping and because of the ‘mass displaces mass’ theory. I’ve also had people assume that I’m not good or fast or technical because I’m fat. Trying to find the balance between self-protection for my real needs, while pushing myself as an athlete has been a really interesting journey as a fat black woman.
I can’t stress enough the importance of researching fitness spaces before you show up for a workout. Finding a place or an environment helps me regain some of the control that racism, queerphobia and grossophobia took away from me.
I am looking for representation. If they’re showing off bigger bodies on their social media, is that part of a weight loss challenge? If I were to get hurt, can I trust that I would be treated with dignity like a fat person? Maybe the space seems safe for women, but not necessarily for black queer women. Maybe the gym looks awesome, but a thin blue flag hangs from the rafters. Maybe they blacked out their Instagram feed last June for a day, but did nothing else to fight white supremacy. I need to know that every part of me will be supported in my fitness environment.